“Getting blown up happened in an instant; getting put together took the rest of your life.”
Louise Erdrich has made a career out of writing novels about Native American people, usually hinging on a crime of some sort, and with just a sprinkle of magical realism (although Erdrich herself objects to that term). It’s a practice that has served her well in her career, shining a light on people and stories traditional media or literature tend to outright ignore. It makes her work feel important, raw.
LaRose should, by all rights, fit right in with this theme. In the opening pages Landreaux Iron is stalking a deer but accidentally shoots and kills the son of his friend and neighbor, Peter Ravich, instead. Grief threatens to tear both families apart until Landreaux gets an answer from the sweat lodge and decides he must offer his own youngest son, LaRose, to Peter and Peter’s wife, Nola. LaRose ends up stuck between two families, the one he was born into and the one that has claimed him–which he feels obligated to protect from grief and tragedy.
The problem is nothing really happens. That description is the most exciting thing about the book. The action mostly stagnates and can’t get going. If you were invested in the characters their grief might be considered compelling, but for some odd reason none but two of the characters are developed beyond their most basic outline. The two that are chosen for development, Nola and her daughter Maggie, have an interesting subplot involving Nola’s suicidal depression, but ultimately that’s all it is: a subplot. The main action is taken up by Landreaux, Peter, and LaRose, who are treated as nothing but ciphers. There are also lengthy digressions into the Iron family’s history to explain the generational history of the LaRoses as well as a subplot involving a preacher who will be familiar to anyone who read The Round House, but in the end they don’t bear much fruit.
There’s also a troublemaking addict named Romeo who is intended to bring about the endgame, but even he is neutered by insignificance. His plot and character arc is predictable and the endgame he brings about is pallid, which means the novel goes out with a whimper instead of the bang that might have saved it.
LaRose is technically well-written but is missing heart. It has a terrific set-up for conflict but it all fizzles out with alarming speed. These are not problems Erdrich usually has with her novels, and I’m definitely hoping it won’t become a recurring one for her.